Lara Bill Will Retroactively Correct Discrepancy in Federal and State Misdemeanor Sentencing Laws

March 30, 2016

SACRAMENTO, CA — Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) today announced legislation to retroactively limit the state’s maximum misdemeanor sentence to 364 days. Senate Bill 1242 will provide on a retroactive basis that all misdemeanors are punishable for no more than 364 days, ensuring that legal residents who have committed low-level misdemeanors are not deported due to discrepancies between state and federal law.


“No family should be torn apart because of a minor legal technicality,” said Senator Lara. “Two years ago, California aligned state and federal law by lowering the maximum sentence of a misdemeanor to 364 days, protecting against unnecessary deportations. SB 1242 accomplishes the same goal retroactively. By applying this change, we will prevent a minor technicality from having drastic and harmful human impact.”


Federal law defines a misdemeanor as a crime punishable for up to 364 days and anything longer is considered a felony. Previously, California defined a misdemeanor as a crime punishable for up to 365 days. Two years ago SB 1310 (Lara, 2014) aligned the definition of a misdemeanor between state and federal law. The federal government did not recognize California’s definition and due to this minor and technical difference, thousands of legal residents, who have committed low level and non-violent crimes were subject to deportation unnecessarily, needlessly ripping apart families.


“This legislation ensures uniformity in the law,” said CACJ President, Matthew Guerrero. “The California Legislature has already clarified that we cannot allow the federal government to mis-classify low-level misdemeanors as felonies…mis-classification can result in automatic deportation of life-long lawful residents and break up of families. This legislation simply applies current law to all Californians regardless of how old these misdemeanor cases may be. 


Legal residents have always been subject to deportation, if they commit specified crimes determined by federal statute. In 1996 Congress enacted the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act, which expanded the list of crimes that a legal immigrant can be deported for to include an aggravated felony. While SB 1310 aligned state and federal law on a prospective basis, it did not help those who were convicted of a misdemeanor prior to 2015. Thousands of legal residents are currently living in California with the threat of deportation looming for minor crimes, due to a technical difference between state and federal law. Many of those people have families and businesses in the state and few ties to their country of origin. Under the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, aggravated felonies fall into two categories: specific crimes that federal law has determined trigger deportation and crimes that are deportable if the defendant receives a 365-day sentence, regardless of the actual time served in jail. In the first category, misdemeanors where the time imposed by the court, irrespective of whether the time is suspended or not, is considered part of the sentence. As a result, a legal immigrant convicted of a crime and sentenced to 365 days with 362 days suspended, who served only 3 days in jail, would have a one year sentence as defined under federal law and face deportation. Additionally, in the second category, convictions of certain misdemeanors are grounds for immediate removal regardless of the sentence, including domestic violence, firearms, and drug-related crimes, among others.


"CHIRLA is proud to be working with a broad coalition and Senator Ricardo Lara to advance SB 1242 to ensure that a one day difference in a misdemeanor sentence does not have unrepeatable immigration consequences for legal immigrants to became citizens or apply for legal status," said Angelica Salas, President of CHIRLA.